English Breakfast with Milk

Posted on May 5, 2011


There’s not really a translation for the concept of ‘café culture’ in Chinese because quite simply, it doesn’t exist. There are cafes, especially in the places where 外国人 (foreigners) hang out, but as a general rule, they are rubbish.  I’m staying in a hotel at a university which hosts a large population of foreign students who bravely submit themselves to the frustrations of Chinese pedagogy, the torture of trying to memorise the painstaking stroke order of characters and the seeming senselessness of tones.  There’s a café in the hotel that aims at an Italian flavour. The menu includes bruschetta, tramezzini and even a four cheese ciabatta. These might seem like pretty normal menu features but for a café in China, it’s ambitious. The only real hit so far has been the hot chips. Despite this, they bring in a roaring trade because they offer free wi-fi. The waiters are very lovely and do their best to be helpful to a clientele who generally has pretty limited Chinese.

Sitting in the café this afternoon, our little posse were quietly going about their internet errands when one of us, Shaku, decided she felt like a nice cup of tea. She asked the waiter for an English Breakfast with milk. The unusually long wait was no warning of something amiss because this café often takes up to forty minutes to produce a cappuccino.

Provided it doesn’t result in terrible outcomes like amputation of the wrong arm or drinking a big glass of Dettol because you picked up the wrong glass of white stuff, miscommunication often triggers a good laugh.

This makes me think of an excellent joke I once heard about George Bush. It’s good and long, which is just how I like my jokes. It takes place in the oval office back when silly old George was bumbling about trying to lead the country and Hu Jin Tao had just been announced the new General Secretary of the CCP.

George: Condi! Nice to see you. What’s happening?

Condi: Sir, I have the report here about the new leader of China.

George:  Great. Lay it on me.

Condi:   Hu is the new leader of China.

George:  That’s what I want to know.

Condi:  That’s what I’m telling you.

George:  That’s what I’m asking you. Who is the new leader of China?

Condi:   Yes.

George:  I mean the fellow’s name.

Condi:   Hu.

George:  The guy in China.

Condi:   Hu.

George:  The new leader of China.

Condi:   Hu.

George:  The Chinaman!

Condi:   Hu is leading China.

George:  Now whaddya’ asking me for?

Condi:   I’m telling you Hu is leading China.

George:  Well, I’m asking you. Who is leading China?

Condi:  That’s the man’s name.

George: That’s whose name?

Condi:  Yes.

George:  Will you or will you not tell me the name of the new leader of China?

Condi:  Yes, sir.

George:  Yasser? Yasser Arafat is in China? I thought he was in the Middle East.

Condi:   That’s correct.

George:  Then who is in China?

Condi:   Yes, sir.

George:  Yasser is in China?

Condi:   No, sir.

George:  Then who is?

Condi:   Yes, sir.

George:  Yasser?

Condi:   No, sir.

George:  Look, Condi. I need to know the name of the new leader of China. Get me the secretary-general of the U.N. on the phone.

Condi:   Kofi?

George:  No, thanks.

Condi:   You want Kofi?

George:  No.

Condi:  You don’t want Kofi.

George:  No. But now that you mention it, I could use a glass of milk. And then get me the U.N.

Condi:   Yes, sir.

George:  Not Yasser! The guy at the U.N.

Condi:   Kofi?

George:  Milk! Will you please make the call?

Condi:   And call who?

George:  Who is the guy at the U.N.?

Condi:   Hu is the guy in China.

George:  Will you stay out of China?!

Condi:   Yes, sir.

George:  And stay out of the Middle East! Just get me the guy at the U.N.

Condi:   Kofi.

George:  All right! With cream and two sugars. Now get on the phone.

(Condi picks up the phone)

Condi:   Rice, here.

George:  Rice? Good idea. And a couple of egg rolls, too. Maybe we should send some to the guy in China. And the Middle East. Can you get Chinese food in the Middle East?

Of course stupidity makes things much much harder. Now back to my story. My friend Shaku is not stupid at all, that certainly wasn’t a complicating factor in this ordeal. She was, however, very surprised when the waiter finally reappeared and presented her with a large plate of eggs, bacon, sausages, baked beans and toast as well as a nice big glass of milk. Yes, English Breakfast with milk!

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